Simanaitis Says

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ALAS, WILL ROGERS died in an airplane crash in 1935, but he clearly left a legacy for our times: “Everything is changing,” he said, “People are taking their comedians seriously, and the politicians as a joke, when it used to be vice versa.”

Other cogent Will Rogers observations follow, interspersed with biographical details.

William Penn Adair Rogers, 1879–1935, American humorist, newspaper columnist, actor, and social commentator.

Will was born in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma. His entertainment career started in vaudeville combining cowboy rope tricks with topical humor.

“I ain’t got anything funny to say,” he’d say, “All I know is what I read in the papers.”

By 1916, Will was playing the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1918, Samuel Goldwyn gave him the title role in Laughing Bill Hyde, a three-year film contract, and triple his Broadway salary.

Will made 48 silent movie shorts during the 1920s. With the arrival of sound movies, Will’s Oklahoma drawl made him a folk star and he made another 21 feature films.

At the same time, Will wrote newspaper columns with an eventual readership of 40 million (U.S. population at the time was around 117 million). In the early 1930s, he toured the national lecture circuit and broadcast his humorous insights on weekly radio shows.

Wikipedia notes that “he often lost track of the half-hour time limit…. To correct this, he brought in a wind-up alarm clock, and its on-air buzzing alerted him to begin wrapping up comments. By 1935, his show was being announced as ‘Will Rogers and his Famous Alarm Clock.’ ”

Will said, “I’m not a member of any organized party…. I’m a Democrat.” Indeed, he was known to be apolitical, in supporting both Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

About Silent Cal he said, “Coolidge made less speeches and got more votes than any man who ever ran. [William Jennings] Bryan was listened to and cheered by more people than any single human in politics, and he lost. So there is a doubt just whether talking does you good or harm.”

WPA poster, 1941.

Will supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, though he also declaimed, “Lord, the money we do spend on Government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money twenty years ago.”

Will made a clear distinction between the two parties: “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they’d be Republicans.”

“The Democrats and the Republicans,” Will said, “are equally corrupt where money is concerned. It’s only in the amount where the Republicans excel.”

When it came to the U.S. Congress, Will expressed gratitude: “I never lack material for my humor column when Congress is in session,” he said.

On a president’s annual State of the Union message to Congress: “The rest of the people know the condition of the country, for they live in it, but Congress has no idea what is going on in America, so the president has to tell ’em.”

Upon hearing that the state of Oklahoma had commissioned a statue of him to be displayed at the U.S. Capitol, Wikipedia notes that “Rogers agreed on the condition that his image would be placed facing the House Chamber, supposedly so he could ‘keep an eye on Congress.’ Of the statues in this part of the Capitol, the Rogers sculpture is the only one facing the Chamber entrance.”

To this day, that particular location is known among media as the “Will Rogers’ stakeout.”

Rogers on the wing of a seaplane belonging to aviation pioneer Wiley Post, shown directly in front of the craft, 1935. Image from U.S. Library of Congress.

An ardent supporter of American aviation, Will became friends with Charles Lindbergh and pioneer aviator Wiley Post. Tragically, he and Post perished in an Alaskan plane crash in 1935.

Contrary to the postage-stamp quote, what Will actually said was, “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.”

Wits have responded to the comment with bumper stickers that read, “Will Rogers Never Met xxxxx.” Would Will have shared some of these sentiments? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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